For 100 years, the United States was the leader of the free world. With the election of Donald Trump, America has now abdicated that role. It is time for Europe, and Angela Merkel, to step into the void.
Even history sometimes leans toward pathos. In January 2017, when Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, the American Age will celebrate its 100th birthday — and its funeral.
The West was constituted in its modern form in January 1917. World War I was raging in Europe at the time and in Washington, D.C., President Woodrow Wilson told his country that it was time for Americans to take responsibility for “peace and justice.” In April he said: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” He declared war on Germany and sent soldiers to Europe to secure victory for the Western democracies — and the United States assumed the leadership of the Western world. It was an early phase of political globalization.
One hundred years later: Trump.
Trump, who wants nothing to do with globalization; Trump, who preaches American nationalism, isolation, partial withdrawal from world trade and zero responsibility for a global problem like climate change. And all of this after a perverse election campaign marked by resentment, racism and incitement.
Human dignity is the centerpiece of the Western project. Following the revolutions in France and the United States in the late 18th century, states began guaranteeing human rights for the first time. Human rights have a normative character, as Heinrich August Winkler argued in his monumental work “History of the West.” And a racist cannot embody this normative project. Trump has no sense of dignity — neither for himself nor others. He does not qualify as the leader of the Western world, because he is both unwilling and incapable of assuming that role.
We now face emptiness — the fear of the void. What will happen to the West, to Europe, to Germany without the United States as its leading power? Germany is a child of the West, particularly of the United States, brought to life with American generosity, long spoon-fed and now in a deep state of shock. The American president was always simultaneously our president, at least a little, and Barack Obama was a worthy president of the West. Now, though, we must come to terms with a lack of Western leadership.
What were those 100 years like? The history of the modern West can be told in many ways: as a heroic tale, as a story of greed, as a mission or as a tale of fear. This article is about 100 years of fear, in particular the fear for our freedom, a quintessentially American paranoia that spread to the rest of the West. The word is not being used negatively here; we are talking about fear as a bulwark protecting us against danger. There are good fears and bad fears.
The Glue that Held Societies Together
Under American leadership, the united democracies were quite successful in dispensing with competing systems. They defeated the conservative German Empire and Austria-Hungary in World War I. In World War II, they eradicated the fascist regimes in the German Reich and Italy. In the Cold War, they pressed the air out of the communist Soviet Union and its minions until they collapsed.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the winner of history was clear: The West.
What made it so strong? On the one hand, it was freedom itself. The market economy was clearly superior to economic forms that were more directly controlled by the state. In the free play of forces, the West developed better products and greater affluence, along with the strength to win wars and arms races.
And the fear of losing freedom was a strong glue that held societies together. Of course there were debates, demonstrations and sulking, and there were some who preferred to be red than dead, but it was always possible to establish a majority for the fundamental Western consensus: We will preserve our freedoms at home and abroad, and we may even expand them. This idea also held the countries together. Under American leadership, and under the American nuclear shield, they were strong and relatively united as “the West.”
The 1990s were the happiest time for the West. The democratic world had grown, and the fear for our freedom seemed to have been dispelled once and for all. There was no longer a major power challenging freedom.
Until Sept. 11, 2001, that is, when it all started again. Belligerent Islamists attacked the capital of freedom, New York, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The terror has continued unabated since then.
Fear now reigns more than ever, but it is not just the fear of terror. And it is also not as much the fear of losing freedom, as it was in the past, but the fear of freedom itself. This is the paradigm shift that paved Donald Trump’s way to the White House. The two fears always exist simultaneously in Western societies. Freedom is enjoyed and feared, freedom is defended and fought, and freedom is expanded and limited. It is merely a question of which fear dominates in a society, and of which current is in power.
Alone with Their Fears
The fear of freedom can take many shapes. There is also a fear of one’s own freedom, but it is usually a fear of the freedom of others. French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre said: Hell is other people. If they are free, one might add.
If they are free enough to cross borders and look for new places to settle. If they are free enough to export their goods and therefore compete with goods from other countries. If they are free enough to fight for their equal rights, as women, as homosexuals, as non-whites. White men, especially older white men, are viewed as Trump’s kingmakers. His support among this group was especially high in the election.
It was undoubtedly a mistake to leave these men, and the women who think like them, alone with their fears — to not take them seriously enough. Long-smoldering fears generate rage, especially against those who are accused of doing nothing to allay those fears, in other words, the establishment, both in politics and the media. For the first time, the Internet has provided this rage with an echo chamber, allowing it to reach a broader public and to magnify the voices of the fearful and the angry. When Donald Trump placed himself at the head of this movement of fury, he found the support he needed to become president. He is now expected to limit freedoms, including free trade and immigration. Many Americans, especially members of minorities, once again fear for their freedom, but this time the threat comes from within. They fear that they will face greater discrimination against their cultures and ways of life under a Trump presidency.
The entire drama can be encapsulated in this sentence: That which is unique about the West — freedom — is perceived as a threat. A crisis couldn’t be more fundamental than that. It has also reached European democracies, where fear and rage are spreading, and for the same reasons as in the United States: immigration, globalization and free trade, in particular. But when it comes to the trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement TTIP, Americans, who the Europeans fear, are apparently even more fearful than the Europeans. But neither Europeans nor Americans need to worry anymore: Trump will likely put an end to TTIP.
In Western Europe, the fearful and the angry haven’t yet managed to push one of their representatives into the office of prime minister or president, although that could happen in Austria’s presidential election in early December.
America was long the benchmark for the West. But if Trump governs as he promised he would during the campaign, the land of the free will abdicate its role as leader of the free world. Then, it will be Europe’s turn. The continent must resist populism, with a smart mixture of taking fears seriously and confronting the rage, but without curbing freedoms.
And it is high time Europe places a stronger emphasis on the European Union. This has been said and written thousands of times already, but perhaps the Trump shock will help to ensure that it finally happens.
Unfortunately, Europe is in the worst shape in decades. The British are leaving the European Union, partly out of fear of the freedom of others, the freedom to settle in Great Britain. Many governments are stressing divisive rather than unifying issues. European countries are drifting apart.
In a certain sense, they could long afford to do so. In the 100 years during which the United States was the protective and leading power of the West, its allies have led a relatively comfortable existence. They had the luxury of only half-heartedly pursuing the European idea, because the Americans were there. Each country maintained its own special relationship with the United States, and everyone depended on its weapons and resolve in the event of an emergency. Now, Europe will likely have to provide for its own security — and this in times of a Vladimir Putin, a Recep Tayyip Erdogan and an Islamic State that exists in Europe’s neighborhood.
The leaders of the West, minus America, face monumental tasks ahead. They are tasks for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She represents a strong country and she has a strong moral foundation, as she demonstrated in the refugee crisis. She doesn’t have to be a Woodrow Wilson, but she should become a decisive leader of Europe. If she doesn’t, it will mean that she has not recognized the signs of the times.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan